By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - Time Warner Inc said on Wednesday it is appointing a new chief at Turner Broadcasting to replace longtime executive Phil Kent, who steps down in 2014, the latest changes to hit the unit that oversees cable networks CNN, TBS and TNT.
The executive shuffle, which will see Time Warner's current finance chief John Martin, 46, take over as Turner's CEO starting in 2014, when Kent steps down, comes at a time when CNN is under transition.
Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner's CEO, tapped Jeff Zucker, the former CEO of NBCUniversal in November to be the new chief of the news channel and orchestrate a turnaround to the network which was struggling in ratings and losing out to Fox News and MSNBC.
Even though CNN is trying to make a comeback, Morningstar analyst Michael Corty said that the Turner unit is in better position than it was a few years ago, with stronger ratings, better original programming and syndicated shows. Time Warner acquired Turner Broadcasting in 1996.
Gabelli & Co estimates Turner generated $9.5 billion in revenue for Time Warner in 2012. HBO, which is under separate leadership made Time Warner $4.5 billion in revenue in 2012, according to Gabelli & Co analyst Brett Harriss.
Under Kent, who is 58, comedy channel TBS lured Conan O'Brien from broadcast TV, struck a syndication deal for CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," which became one of the top-rated shows on cable, and secured valuable NCAA and NBA basketball rights.
Advertising at the unit was down 1 percent in the first quarter, which surprised Wall Street analysts. The company said second-quarter ad revenue at its networks will be up in the high single digits in percentage terms.
Bewkes said in a statement that the move came at Kent's "initiation" and that now was the "right time to announce the next generation of leadership."
Kent said in an internal memo obtained by Reuters that he had many conversations with Bewkes and decided not to renew his contract when it ends next year.
"I've told Jeff (Bewkes) and John Martin that they have my full and enthusiastic support, and that I'll do whatever I can to assist when John assumes the title of CEO next January, and I remain chairman," Kent said.
Time Warner could be grooming finance chief John Martin to be a potential CEO with the new role at Turner, analysts said. Martin had been Time Warner's CFO since 2008.
"They're always looking to groom potential candidates so it's a step in that direction and he's one of the many possibilities to replace Bewkes one day," Morningstar's Corty said.
Walt Disney Company used a similar tactic in 2010 when the company swapped the jobs of then-finance chief Tom Staggs and parks chairman Jay Rasulo, Gabelli & Co analyst Harriss said.
Bewkes, 61, has been Time Warner's CEO since 2008.
Martin will become Turner's CEO on January 1, 2014. Kent will serve as Turner's chairman until the end of 2014, the company said.
Time Warner said it would name a new finance chief in the next few weeks.
(Reporting By Liana B. Baker; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Andrew Hay)